John Stevens is a former member of the European Parliament.
“It is the end of an auld song.” So said the head of the Scottish Armstrongs to the head of the English Medfords, families which had been fighting across the Tweed for almost a thousand years, at their first meeting following the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603. It received only the reply of national stereotypical understatement: “Yes.”
It is inevitable that the current crisis in Catalonia, the new eye of the ever-shifting storm surrounding Europe’s future structure, should make us compare it to our own problems with Scottish nationalism – as it is to consider its relevance for the referendum result last year to leave the European Union. Certainly many who support that decision, and who were already roused by the recent federalist speeches of Presidents Juncker and Macron, see in the latest turn in the long and tortuous tale of Catalan nationalism, and in the failure of the EU’s institutions to criticise the Spanish government’s very forceful actions against it, further confirmation of their fears about an emerging continental super-state, and thus a vindication of their view.
Yet very few of those who support, or sympathize with, the Catalan autonomous administration’s aspirations for independence, contemplate that such an outcome would mean leaving the EU, or even just the Eurozone. And interference by the EU in the internal affairs of any member states, provided that it preserves the rule of law, would be the most potent proof positive of precisely such a super-state. Particularly so were it to indicate that an independent Catalonia could continue in the EU and the Eurozone.
But the EU has indeed criticised Poland, for example, over the compromised independence of her Supreme Court, on the grounds that this infringed the higher principle of the separation of powers inherent to the proper conduct of the rule of law. And surely Spanish riot police bludgeoning Catalan voters, even if the referendum in which they were participating was illegal, cannot, on the yet higher principle of democracy, be countenanced in any circumstances? Is not a national written constitution, outlawing any referendum on regional secession, by the same token, an outrage? One in the sharpest contrast to the democratic maturity of our unwritten constitution, which placidly permitted the Scottish independence referendum of 2014?
The merits of written constitutions relative to tradition, and the efficacy of plebicitary, relative to representative democracy, for resolving complex political questions, however, is debateable. The appearance, or the anticipation, of a clear binary choice for or against Scottish or Catalan independence, following a debate which has clarified, crystallized and thus concluded the matter, fades very fast, once the gamut of grievances which fuel nationalist feelings are fully revealed. The same, both sides can surely concede, must be said of our European referendum too.
Many voted to leave the EU because they feared that with its notions of a “Europe of the Regions” European integration must eventually undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom. Preserving the Union with Scotland, so critical for the future of the monarchy, of our nuclear deterrent, of our very sense of ourselves, must take priority over all other considerations. And, in the short run, they have been proven right. By massively raising its economic cost, through the necessity of a hard border, Brexit has definitely decisively cut support for Scottish nationalism.
I believe the current crisis in Catalonia will be settled, legally and democratically, through a combination of fresh elections to the Catalan Parliament, and the grant by Madrid to Barcelona of further fiscal and cultural independence such as is enjoyed by the Basques, within a wider rationalisation of Spain’s very variegated devolution, into a more coherent, transparent and equitable federal system, such as that of Germany. I also believe it will prompt a profound further development of the central principles of the EU.
Ever since 1990, when German re-unification necessitated prospective Polish membership of the EU and the explicit confirmation of the Oder-Neisse Line, one of these principles has been the inviolability of the existing borders between member states. History has left many cruel anomalies across Europe between nation states, none crueller than the German-Polish frontier. But a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for all Europeans is only possible if international borders no longer move, but rather progressively melt away through deeper economic, cultural and political integration. After so much conflict, the time had come to say: “It is the end of an auld song.”
Now, Catalonia’s crisis is causing several European leaders to wonder whether this principle should be extended to the internal inviolability of Member States. For history has also left many cruel anomalies across Europe, within nation states, and those between Catalans and Castilians are certainly not the cruellest. And again, a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future for all Europeans is only possible if any 19th century-style erecting of borders is rejected in favour of 21st century-style economic, cultural and political autonomy, that benefits from, and is guaranteed by, the supra-national context of the EU.
If this were to happen, it would reverse the calculation here that leaving the EU was the only way to preserve the Union. Inside the EU, Scottish nationalists could certainly seek more devolved powers than they currently possess, but they could not expect to aspire to traditional independence and create a new border between Scotland and England.
Will the Catalans, in order to keep the benefits of membership of the EU and the Eurozone, and all that implies, which they have through being part of Spain, settle for further autonomy, whilst abandoning the absolutism of independence? Will they be the pioneers of this important iteration of the European idea? I hope, again despite everything, despite Madrid’s and their own mis-judgements, they will find the greatness, which is already so evident in their economic prowess and cultural brilliance, to say, not just to the rest of Spain, but on behalf of all Europeans: “It is the end of an auld song.”